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A Teacher in a Time of Pandemic

By Gretchen Thomas

Our pandemic blog series continues this week with an interview with Jeremy B. Jones, a professor at Western Carolina University and author of Bearwallow: A Personal History of a Mountain Homeland (Blair, 2014), which won the 2014 Appalachian Book of the Year in nonfiction and was awarded gold in the 2015 Independent Publisher Book (IPPY) Awards in memoir. Gretchen Thomas (GT) caught up with Jeremy (JJ) recently over e-mail.

Jeremy B. Jones

GT: How long have you worked for Western Carolina University and what is your official title?
JJ: Associate Professor, seven years.

GT: What was your schooling like to get to your position today?
JJ: I earned my MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa.

GT: Western Carolina University moved classes online in March of 2020. If you were teaching at that time, please explain how you dealt with the sudden move to teaching in an online setting.
JJ:We survived! My courses last spring moved to a self-paced, online model when the pandemic hit: students completed their work and watched short video lectures from me as they were able. I realized pretty quickly everyone—including me—needed a little grace to try to manage all of the stress and uncertainty. In the fall, I was on scholarly development leave, in theory to finish a book, so I wasn’t teaching. (In practice, I spent most of my time homeschooling my kids and trying to find funding sources for the Spring Literary Festival.) In spring 2021, I taught online only, and by that point everyone had become a pro at navigating the Zoom classroom. I missed seeing students in real life—having them drop by my office to fill me in on their writing and lives—but the classes moved smoothly enough. I learned, in fact, that a writing workshop works surprisingly well online.

GT: How has the pandemic changed the way you teach, if at all?
JJ: I haven’t taught face-to-face since the pandemic began, so I don’t know yet how the experience of teaching online might change my in-person teaching. One lesson that I’m always learning as a teacher is that I never know what’s happening in any one student’s life. So many students are juggling responsibilities—working multiple jobs, caring for children or parents or siblings, navigating mental health issues—and the pandemic made this truth all the more evident. I have always tried to give students the benefit of the doubt, but I believe in this approach even more after the last year.

GT: As the director of WCU’s Literary Festival, how was the event changed to fit COVID-19 restrictions? What struggles had you faced with trying to host events during the pandemic?
JJ: It wasn’t an easy festival to pull of this year, but we did—and had fun doing it. Of course most of the festival took place virtually this year. Rather than simply replicate an in-person festival online, we tried to create something new. In the livestream events, we asked writers to play silly literary games with surprise guests, we asked students—students like the very talented interviewer Gretchen Thomas!—to interview writers during the livestream. We asked, for example, the graphic writer Kristen Radtke to play literary Pictionary with the writer Rachel Yoder. West Virginia novelist Mesha Maren played a West Virginia trivia game with Jessie van Eerden. In short, we tried to make the events dynamic and engaging. We wanted to highlight each writer’s distinctive voice, so we individualized each event instead of asking the writers to read to a screen for 30 minutes. (These videos are all archived and accessible, here.)

The other struggle this year was finding funding. Many of the grants we rely on weren’t awarded amid the pandemic, so I spent a lot of time searching for funding sources to keep the festival alive. And it is alive.

GT: As an educator, what was your biggest challenge teaching in an online setting?
JJ: Keeping my kids off camera. Well, and also, figuring out how to meet students where they are. In a classroom, I have many built-in assessments throughout a class period. I’m putting students in groups or throwing out writing prompts. Students don’t often know these informal assessments are there, but I’m checking in throughout the period to make sure they’re getting the material. It was more difficult to do this online, and I couldn’t naturally chat with students after class or during group work, so I worried about students keeping up.

GT: Western Carolina University has announced the return of in-person classes, do you believe that being in-person will aid students’ education? Why or why not?
JJ: I think for most students it will. One takeaway from this past year, however, is that some students perform better outside of the pressure of the traditional classroom, so I hope those students will continue to find formats that aid their learning. For most students, though, being in a classroom again will make learning easier and more engaging. There’s something about physically entering a classroom space that alerts the brain that something different is happening. And, not to get to woo-woo, but there’s also an energy there, and I think if an instructor is using (or fueling) it well, learning in a classroom can be catalytic.

GT: After surviving a hectic year and a half of teaching online, what is one piece of advice that you would give yourself to survive teaching during a pandemic?
JJ: I know I said it once already, but it’s important enough to say again: everyone—including yourself—needs some grace.

GT: What advice would you give to those interested in teaching at the collegiate level?
JJ: Find opportunities to teach wherever you can: writing workshops at the local library, leading book clubs at a youth center, coaching little league, etc. Don’t limit yourself to a traditional classroom. You can learn about teaching and about learning in any environment, and the more you’re thinking about how to best motivate and educate the people around you, the more you’re growing as a teacher.

GT: This fall, we are asking literary professionals of all kinds to give us one good piece of advice. What is the best advice you ever heard, or what advice would you give your younger self?
JJ: Donald Murray wrote that he wished he’d known this when he was 21 (as a new writer): “all acceptances are as irrational as all rejections.” I carry this advice with me a lot because the literary world is one of near-constant rejection. But these rejections aren’t personal, and they’re often more about that publication’s context (what they’ve recently published, how much space they have in an issue, what that editor ate for breakfast) than they are about the writer’s work. BUT! It’s equally important to remember that the acceptances are as subjective as those rejections. As artists, it’s tempting to equate our worth—both personal and artistic—with acceptance or rejection. But that’s a fool’s errand. Instead, we have to do the work that compels us, and keep moving.